Parshat Shemot by Aviva Bellman
Parshat Shemot sets up the exodus story. The family of Jacob, a budding nation, has resettled in Egypt. Shortly thereafter, the Israelites become victim to Egyptian oppression. We are then given a glimmer of hope as the torah tells of the birth of Moshe, redeemer of the Jewish people. The problem is this: the young Moshe portrayed in the first book of Shmot does not seem to meet the criteria one would expect in a redemptive hero. He instead acts impulsively, shows naivety, and expresses insecurity. While he does stand up for what he believes is just, his actions are not very effective in creating change. To me, it begs the question: Why does God choose Moshe?
Moshe’s first recorded action seems impulsive and ineffective. One day, he walks outside the palace where he was raised and witnessed an Egyptian beating a Jew. The text says that he ‘went out to his brothers, witnessed their suffering,’ looked to make sure the ‘coast was clear,’ and struck the oppressor dead (Shemot: 2:11-12). Unfortunately, Moshe’s action does not seem to be effective in reducing the affliction of the Jewish people. His isolated murder of an Egyptian oppressor does nothing to stop the course of oppression, and as the chapter continues, Jewish oppression becomes more severe. It is also clear that Moshe was not authorized to do what he did, as shortly thereafter he is forced to flee from Pharoah’s resulting death threat. It seems that he hadn’t really thought his deed through very much, as it failed to produce any lessening of oppression yet created a lot of trouble for him.
A following episode shows Moshe chastising fellow Jews whom he finds quarreling. Here too, he is not very successful, and the men respond with the following jibe: ‘Who appointed you boss over us?.. Do you plan on killing us as you killed that Egyptian?’ (14). These Jewish men, presumably older than Moshe, do not seem to be very receptive to rebuke from a young man who did not even grow up within their Jewish community. In fact, it seems almost naïve of Moshe to have thought that his mere instance that they stop fighting would actually stop the conflict. Again, Moshe has tried yet failed to create positive change.
It is unsurprising then that, when asked by God to lead the Jewish people out of slavery, Moshe lacks the confidence that he is capable of such a grand mission. Yet, God of the burning bush is perfectly comfortable appointing young Moshe as leader. God tolerates Moshe’s impulsiveness, his eagerness to do good works without the experience and maturity to make him effective. What counts, it seems, is Moshe’s unadulterated passion for justice, his inability to tolerate oppression when he sees it. Moshe was unable to remain a passive observer of oppression, of conflict, even when he may well have known that his impulsive actions would not bring the desired results. God has patience for Moshe’s insecurities and empowers him to trust that, in time, he will grow to become an effective and beloved change-maker.
Of course, in social justice work and leadership, experience and knowledge is important. Experienced people carefully research a given issue and thoughtfully plan before taking action. Still, there does seem to be room for an element of spontaneity, even naivety, in rallying against oppression and injustice regardless of whether such movements will prove effective. Such an approach my counter any paralyses resulting from overanalyzing issues to the extent that the time to actually rectify them never seems to come. Perhaps in a successful movement, there needs to be a slightly naïve idealist who shouts, ‘We don’t have time to think so hard, we need to fight injustice NOW!’ Perhaps God chooses Moshe because he doesn’t get bogged down by thinking too carefully before taking a ‘leap of faith’ and protesting injustice.